Drought officially declared in parts of England after months of dry weather

As rising temperatures hit the UK, water levels have dropped and an official drought has been called in parts of England - Amy Lewis reports

Parts of the South West, parts of southern and central England, and the East of England are to be officially moved into drought status, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said.

The drought was officially declared across wide swathes of England after the driest first half of the year since 1976.

The decision was made by the National Drought Group (NDG) – comprised of civil servants, the Environment Agency (EA), water companies and other groups including the National Farmers’ Union – following a meeting on Friday morning.

England could see a drought last into next year following the driest summer for 50 years, a senior figure at the EA has warned.

John Curtin, executive director for local operations at the EA, said it would take “weeks’ worth of rain” to replenish water sources.

The combination of dry earth below and heat from above is making it no longer a case of if a fire will break out, but where, reports Ellie Pitt

The announcement could lead to more measures such as hosepipe bans, however, the EA has reassured the public that essential water supplies are safe.

At a meeting earlier this summer, the NDG moved most of England into “prolonged dry weather” status, the first of four stages used to describe its response. Eight of 14 areas designated by the EA have now moved to “drought”, the second stage, including Devon and Cornwall, Solent and South Downs, Kent and South London, Herts and North London, East Anglia, Thames, Lincolnshire and Northamptonshire, and East Midlands.

It comes after the country experienced a prolonged period of dry weather, with England's rainfall down 26% in the first three months of the year.

Dry cracked earth at Baitings Reservoir in Ripponden, West Yorkshire, where water levels are significantly low. Credit: PA

Drought occurs during a period of hot, dry weather and low rainfall, leading to a water shortage. Some of the effects can include wildfires, crop failure and and water pollution.

Experts have warned of an "exceptional" risk of blazes spreading in many places across the country.

Holidaymakers were on Friday told to avoid a popular Dorset beach after a large fire broke out earlier this afternoon. A large number of firefighters are currently tackling the blaze in the Studland area, which has led to the suspension of local ferry services. Dorset and Wiltshire Fire and rescue is urging the public to avoid the Ferry Road area, and "stay off the heath".

  • Video of the blaze in the Studland area is from Rob Johnson

The NDG's decision to declare a drought will likely prompt more hosepipe bans and further measures by water companies to manage resources to protect dwindling supplies.

The EA has said essential supplies of water are safe, but said that in drought affected areas the public is urged to use water wisely.

“We are currently experiencing a second heatwave after what was the driest July on record for parts of the country," Water Minister Steve Double said.

"Action is already being taken by the government and other partners including the Environment Agency to manage the impacts. “All water companies have reassured us that essential supplies are still safe, and we have made it clear it is their duty to maintain those supplies. “We are better prepared than ever before for periods of dry weather, but we will continue to closely monitor the situation, including impacts on farmers and the environment, and take further action as needed.”

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The dry weather continues to pose many challenges for farmers, with huge pressure on this year’s harvest due to the lack of rainfall.

David Exwood, the vice-president of the National Farmers Union, described the arid conditions as "exceptional". 

He said the dry, dusty conditions - stretching from Cornwall to Cumbria - could lead to crop failure and has raised fears about the availability of food for the winter.

Concerns have been raised that irrigation options are diminishing with reservoirs being emptied fast.

'These are exceptional conditions after months of dry weather,' David Exwood said

"There are real concerns about the availability of food for the winter," Mr Exwood told ITV News, as he urged for better planning around food security. 

"We need water to irrigate crops as well so we can feed the country - and there is real concerns about the availability of that now as well."

According to the NFU, crops such as sugar beet and maize are showing signs of stress from a lack of rain, while crops relying on irrigation, such as field vegetables and potatoes, are also facing problems.

Mr Exwood went on to say the windy, dry conditions has left the countryside "tinder-dry", meaning the "slightest spark will start a fire". 

"It is so dry. It is an exceptional time - we are seeing fires all across the country every day," he added.

Flames from a grass fire burning on Leyton flats in east London Credit: PA

Yorkshire Water, which supplies five million customers, has become the latest company to announce a hosepipe ban, with restrictions coming into effect from August 26.

Welsh Water, Southern Water, Thames Water, and South East Water have all imposed hosepipe bans.

The most recent EA data showed rainfall totals for August have ranged from 12% of the long-term average in north east England to 0% in south east and south west England. Meanwhile river flow data revealed almost 90% of measuring sites were showing below normal readings, with 29% classed as “exceptionally low”.

People walk on the dry cracked earth at Baitings Reservoir in Ripponden, West Yorkshire. Credit: PA

Sir Keir Starmer has accused the government of failing to fully prepare the UK for drought, hitting out also at the response of water companies.

The Labour leader, speaking in Edinburgh, said: “Water companies aren’t doing enough to deal with leakages and other problems. “We saw the sewage going into rivers and I think that some of the regulations should have been better used. “I would have liked to have seen to see much greater fines against those companies that aren’t doing what is necessary. But there’s a familiar pattern here, which is we’ve got a government with no strategy. He said that Labour would have a “strategic plan” for water supply. “The regulations that are there are not being used to their full extent. I think there should be new regulations as well to ensure that we plan for the future.”